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Thread: Help with intermediate steps?

  1. #1
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    Aug 2011

    Help with intermediate steps?

    Hello All,

    I'm a keyboard player and composer who has decided to get *great* relative pitch for a lot of reasons. Mainly I want to take melodic lines straight from my head onto paper/computer/instrument/wherever so I can use them to compose. I always composed with theory "on the staff" and made nice (but suprising) music, and I want more than that.

    I am learning to hear tones functionally and as intervals, and have made a lot of headway that I am happy with. I use FET and some random interval trainer with nice sounds and a good interface. Why both methods? I like the idea of using the one that comes first for any given step, then checking it with the other (Alain Benbassat & Ron Gorow, two transcribers who I respect, seem to do this).

    So, here's my first problem (and it seems common...). When I listen to intervals (in isolation) they sound different than in a phrase, and not only due to tonality, I think. I'd really like an interval trainer that played two notes, asked the interval, then played a third, asked the interval, then fourth, interval, etc rather that presenting a pair fragment every time. It'd be great for tonal memory and more "realisitic". I think people might see more success that way since that's how you have to relate tones in real music.

    I have made mp3s of what I call "interval cascades" - that is, starting at the top of the piano range and moving down or vice versa, all in a single interval. I try to hear the interval, by feel, without "freezing" a pair of notes in my head, and it's really different(hard). I learned via song association (don't do it!!) and have done a lot of work to learn to hear "by feel". I also work out with 3-5 note phrases at trainear (awful sounding) or doing all right (hard to keep a percentage for logs) and it is horribly painful and slow, even though I can hit all 24 (ascending/descending) easily and quickly in isolation. Anyone who's been through this, got any advice (besides "don't bother with intervals") for jumping this rift? I feel like I'm jumping from pushups to one-handed headstand pushups here, and want a middle step.

    My second problem is with the functional method. Once again, I am good at hearing the scale degree right after a cadence. I actually learned it much more quickly and easily than intervals, and it feels way more natural. However, when I apply it to a phrase at Musical Mind (and that's only diatonic tones!) or elsewhere I have issues. If I mishear a single tone, sometimes my mind seems to readjust to the misheard tone. Like if I say, "I'm sure that was a 4" and it was a 3, even after being corrected I'll "feel" b2 is the tonic, and I'll get it back only after answering a few questions right. In short, I lose the tonic. I don't consciously think of the tonic when I ID notes, I do it just by their sound now, but I still lose the musical "tonality". To fix this I've started working out on the FET practice mode where you get a tonic every 5, but I'm really eager to hear any better advice for a middle step.

    For both these problems, my basic practicing method is so different than what I'm really trying to do. And for both, I practice much "slower" (hearing things even quickly in isolation is a crawl compared to one after the other in the slowest song) and it feels like taking a bicycle onto the highway. I'm in for the long haul, so I'll get there someday, but pointers would be great, if any of you can relate.

    P.S. I don't sing much, because of my living situation. I'd like to learn solfege, but I'm not totally sure how to self-teach, and I just don't have the situation to be making noise - I play keys with headphones, do everything with headphones. I'd still be into hearing someone's successful solfege self-teaching method (yup, too poor to pay for a voice teacher), but that's my situation.

    Thanks for your time,


  2. #2
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    Join Date
    Feb 2008
    Hi Brian.

    Cant really tell you about the interval method because i barely used it before switching to the functionnal scale degree method which is much more useful in my opinion.

    It looks like you're on the right track training FET. I may have an explaination about your confusion bewteen the MAJ3 et the perfect four. Given that you started with training for intervals you may have developped the habit of judging an interval by width (number of semitones) instead of by functionnal meaning. Although a MAJ3 and a fourth are only a semitone apart the MAJ3 have a very different function and once you can hear it, you will not be confused by its proximity with the Fourth.

    In FET you may want to switch multi-octave option (I dont remember the exact name) so that you loose the habit to judge intervals by distance.

    About your problems with applying those skills to real music transcribing. It's a matter of hard work and it takes time. It's too bad that you cannot sing because it's really an important part of the process of internalizing stuff. Cant you at least hum ? Maybe you try to transcribe difficult stuff.

    The first step should be probably to transcribe simple songs that you can sing from memory like christmas carols for instance. In any case try to start with pure diatonic songs in major or minor scale. Actually the very first step for you should be to locate the tonic in those songs since you seem to have trouble keeping a tonic in mind. It seems now that you try to hold the tonic in mind like a simple sound but fail to see the musical "logic" behind it and that's probably what cause it to shift to the b2 in your mind. Once you developp an instinct for hearing the tonic of a song as the most important note, the note you feel like should be the most suitable to end the song, this problem should disappear and hearing functionnaly should fall into place. Without that "sense" of tonic hearing scale degrees seems almost impossible.

    Also, besides trying to learn the intervals between the tonic and a pitch you may want to sing (or sing in your head) the scale steps to the nearest tonic. For instance, in fet in major mode, if it plays a mi, you should sing mi re do, if it plays a sol sing sol la si do.
    Intervals are good but the brain operates a lot with note sets (translate that to scale). It should be easier to start using scale degrees in transcribing songs with this method. Because most songs usually revolve around few scales and its easier to follow how their melody moves in a scale than to judge individually each note as an interval from the tonic. Moreover a lot of simple melody move stepwise (one step of a scale at a time) so this method make them easy to follow.

    Again you should probably spend some time singing the major scale and minor natural scale with a awareness of the scale degrees you sing.
    If you really cant sing at all. Try to improvise using those scales on keyboard. You can also put a backing track if you want to play along.

    One great tip I have noticed to learn scale degrees is to choose one scale degree you want to focus on and treat it as an avoid note. For instance in c major say you want to focus on the tonic, then avoid playing any C while you improvise. You will probably notice that often you "crave" to play it because this is the note that seems the most logical in the given context. You will notice how strong the absence of this note reveal its inner musical function and what place it has in the musical phrases you create.

    Thoses are not the only methods but if your goal is to be able to create directly on paper this should work (it worked for me). At least it should get you started.

    Hope it helps.

  3. #3
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    Aug 2011
    Thank you for taking the time to reply to me. It's true that at first learning the functions I had a tendency to "cheat" by using interval distances, but I realized that it was problematic, and I started training exclusively on the "large tone range, random key" mode to cure it, and it worked.

    I don't specifically have a problem with mistaking 3 for 4 or any other set of tones, exactly, and I don't "hear" the tonic each time and get an interval (that is all too hard/slow). I am learning the tones "by feel", like you say. At first I "heard" the scale-wise resolution to tonic (like in the program), but I even decided that was too much calculation; slower and less accurate for me. I am good at just hearing which number it is, (I almost never miss a diatonic note anymore) it's just that inside a musical phrase it is very difficult to isolate each tone for feel like I can when I train with cadence-note-cadence-note; it all seems too fast, like the other surrounding notes interfere with the one I am listening for...

    Just listening to music to find the tonic is a great idea. I'll try transcribing the rhythm of some midis, and circle the notes I think are ones, then I'll go back and check in the file. I bet that will help. I could probably try that with all the scale degrees, until it becomes automatic - since focusing on one thing might be easier.

    I like the improvising practice too. I will try it. When I learn tunes I always write them out as scale degrees to try and help with internalizing.

    I'll keep trying to make space to sing (or hum quietly). I know it's important. I play a cadence at the keyboard, choose a scale degree, "hear" it in my head, and then play the tone to see if I was right sometimes, but without actually singing aloud it's a little hard to tell when I'm slightly off. I want to be able to sight-"hear" from paper as well...

    So, you compose straight onto paper accurately? I assume you can transcribe well too - and you only use the functional method? Do you have problems with short phrases or more chromatic music? or modulations? I have often been tempted to drop interval training (and spend all my time on functional) because it seems less generally useful, but I am worried that it would be necessary for certain cases.

    I've wondered if a very skilled listener could "decide" that any given note is the tonic in a song, and go from there choosing scale degrees. Shifting the feeling of tonic mentally in a simple song would be interesting to try, and being able to do that well would make any song easy to notate. It seems to me feeling tonality is really automatic, so maybe that would be too hard...

    Anyway, thanks again. I'll keep plugging away...

  4. #4
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    Feb 2008
    Reading your new post. I feel like I may have mislead you about my listening level. We may be not that far away. Although I did compose some melodies stricly on paper, I dont have necessarly instant recognition of all notes I hear. I'm used to listening to radio in my car on the way to work, and when I hear something I like, like a part of solo or an interesting melody, I like to try to transcribe it in my head in scale degrees so that i can play it later. I do hear some scale degrees automatically but not for every note in music so i have to mentally replay the part i'm interested in to fill the gaps. Usually the notes I recognize automatically are the harmonic key notes, the notes remaining to identify, i often consider them as patterns around those key notes.

    Actually, at a time when I praticed a lot this skill, I did hear automatically the tonic third and fifth no matter how fast they were played, so it made filling the gaps easier because there was this kind of "grid" applied to music.

    I understand that you expect the scale degrees to sound the same in real music than in a training program. That's a common mistake that i made too. Failing to recognize something you think to know when it is presented in another context. I'm afraid that's a limitation of most training programs. The difference with music is often the current chord can change how scale degrees sound, so you may have an easy time when on the tonic chord but a hard time when on the IV for instance.

    At the end nothing makes you better at transcribing music than doing it really. You may also want to focus more on remembering phrases than individual degrees (reading your last post you seem to have started doing it). You will discover that a lot of phrases work as musical "cliché" and are used repeatidly in a lot of songs. The ear tend to group sounds, and the individual scale degrees are not very meanfull, it's more group of notes that compose the words in music. Once you know enought words containing a scale degree,it's really internalized, and only then you can recognize it in new contexts without much troubles.
    Last edited by abminor; 08-13-2011 at 06:04 PM.

  5. #5
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    Feb 2008
    Quote Originally Posted by Brian_ View Post

    I assume you can transcribe well too - and you only use the functional method? Do you have problems with short phrases or more chromatic music? or modulations? I have often been tempted to drop interval training (and spend all my time on functional) because it seems less generally useful, but I am worried that it would be necessary for certain cases.
    I'm not using only the functionnal method, i seem to hear the more harmonic relevant notes using the functionnal method but for the surrounding notes, i use a mixture of interval method and intuition based on my years of experiences of improvising on guitar. Actually if the surrounding notes are scale steps or chromatics. I hear them simply as they are. This is again probably improvising experience striking.

    i'm ok with chromatics as long as it doesn't become too complex. For instance a chord tone surrounded by 1-2 chromatics is ok, as is a long stream of chromatics because the minor second interval is easy to recognize. However, if there are too many variations between chromatics and wider intervals in a row i may get lost. It's hard too tell you exactly how complex the music can be before i get lost.

    As for modulations the easy part is too automatically hearing the notes against the new tonic, the difficult is deciding which scale degree became this new tonic. Here i may have to pause and mentally replay the modulating part.

    As you see I'm still learning maybe some members with more experience could give you additional pointers.

    It also depend on the kind of music you wish to transcribe. The best is to start directly with that kind of music if it is not too complex so you will develop the skills you really need. For instance if you wish to notate your own music, have you started imagining aurally something and transcribe it ? I know we all have to learn but don't get too hooked up on the training part because it can be addictive and make you forget about your initial goal.

    If music seems too complex, try to simplify it by only notating what you think are the most important notes. This is a great exercise too as it reveal the skeleton of music, the real core, as opposed to ornementations. Once you've done that it should be easier to fill the gaps.

  6. #6
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    Aug 2011
    Good advice. It seems like our approaches are not that far different. When I composed on paper before, I generally made a skeleton melody out of key scale degrees, one or two for each bar, and then experimented with how to get to each one. The idea of using functional listening for those structural tones and intervallic listening for the ornaments makes a lot of sense to me.

    It's hard to know when enough training is enough and switch rails to transcribing real music, but I think I've got a strategy for now.

    For functional training: I'm moving from FET's practice method with a cadence at every step to a cadence at every 5, which is more realistic but I still get to deal with one note at a time. When my skills get up to snuff there, I'll move on to Musical Mind's melody trainers, first three note and then longer phrases. Then, real music.

    For intervals: I'll just keep grinding away at learning phrases, since I can't think of an intermediate step between individual intervals and short phrases.

    At some point I'll put the two together and use them to double check each other. I'll get there eventually!

    Thanks for the advice. Hopefully reading this thread will be helpful to others as well.

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